If Aston Villa avoid relegation this season then it will probably be by default, rather than because of their own endeavours. It is difficult to identify any guaranteed points coming from their remaining three fixtures. First, they travel to The Hawthorns to face comfortably mid-table West Bromwich Albion. Then Tottenham Hotspur visit Villa Park and, while they have become increasingly unpredictable, they have the potential to inflict the kind of defeat that could have Villa travelling to face Norwich with any remaining confidence being scrapped off the boots of Gareth Bale and co. However, the teams below them also face tricky fixtures in their own bids to stay in the top division.
QPR go to Chelsea and Manchester City with a game against Stoke at Loftus Road sandwiched in between. Wigan host Newcastle before playing Blackburn, in a game that is already gathering massive significance to itself, and then host already relegated Wolves on the final day of the season. Bolton are away to Sunderland before successive home games against Tottenham and West Brom. Finally, Blackburn travel to Tottenham followed by that critical encounter with Wigan and they face Chelsea on the last day of the season.
Excluding Wolves, Blackburn, with 31, have the lowest number of points among the teams currently sitting below Aston Villa. They also have, arguably, the toughest run-in, bested only by QPR who have 3 more points and a feistiness when they come up against the big teams. Manchester City’s title run-in and Chelsea’s appearance in the Champions League Final mean there are additional factors that make QPR’s games with them slightly more difficult to predict. Key will likely be some calling up the spirit that has animated the team during home games against the big clubs.
Wigan will be comforted by their new found confidence and charisma, and will surely believe they can take points off both Blackburn and a forlorn Wolves side bidding farewell to the Premier League. Bolton will, in all likelihood, need to get something at the Stadium of Light or their games against Tottenham and West Brom risk being suffocated in the kind of desperation that isn’t conducive to winning football matches. In sum, there are a couple of teams who appear to be more vulnerable than Villa, even if a couple of their other antagonists seem likely to accumulate more points. And it will be on this basis- the scheduling misfortune and limitations of others-rather than their own merits that Villa will probably avoid the ignominy of relegation to the Championship.
It would be surprising, however, if this meek finish to a quietly appalling season didn’t herald the end of Alex McLeish’s time at the club. His tenure has been dogged by a level of hostility from a section of the fans but this has been exacerbated in recent weeks as an underperforming side tripped and stumbled into a relegation battle that, with hindsight, seems to have been destination all season long. The response from the Villa Park crowd on Monday night, after Bolton came back to win, was typical relegation dog fight mood music but it also evoked the deeper unease that has persisted since McLeish was appointed.
Villa’s performances this season have possibly served to vindicate those fans who questioned the appointment of the man who couldn’t prevent their city rivals from being relegated last season. It is one thing to condescendingly salute such a character, quite another have see him appointed to manage your own club. McLeish’s reputation as a Premier League calibre manager would be seriously tarnished if he guided another Birmingham club to relegation. The announcement that Stiliyan Petrov had been diagnosed with acute leukaemia was a personal tragedy and is a source of perspective as the club face the drop. But it would be disingenuous to suggest that this has been the primary reason behind Villa’s predicament because, in reality, their league position is a reflection of a season of mediocrity.
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